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Andorra awaits - James Cove, Andorra
Tuesday March 19, 2013 - Email this article to a friend

The ski resorts high up in the Pyrenees have had record- breaking snow this winter; the best in decades. The area is becoming increasingly popular after a difficult few years. PlanetSKI reports from Andorra.

If you think of Andorra the chances are it will conjure up images of budget skiing, easy slopes, a limited ski area and all fuelled by cheap, duty-free alcohol. 

Ibiza on snow.

Some think it's an area for beginners, school trips and those more interested in the après ski than the ski.  A cheap option if nothing else is available.

Little could be further from the truth.

Certainly the prices are good, the slopes do suit intermediates and there is most definitely an abundance of cheap drinks but there is so much more. Some of my ski friends and fellow ski writers question me when I sing the praises of Andorra, but I reckon there is much to sing about.

If you look beyond the clichés and stereotypes then Andorra has much to offer.

The main ski area of Grandvalira that contains the main resorts of Pas de La Casa and Soldeu has 205km of linked slopes and it rivals many of the areas in the Alps. The lifts are modern and the slopes well maintained. The first lift was installed in 1952. Now it has 108 lifts and last winter even staged a round of the Women's World Cup.

It also hosts a round of the speed skiing World Cup where the fastest men on two skis reach speeds of 200km/h.  Neither competition could take place if there wasn't enough vertical descent.

Freeride areaFreeride area

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perhaps just as surprising is the off piste skiing and freeriding - partly because the terrain is good but also most people do not venture beyond the marker posts in Andorra so the powder does not get tracked out quickly.

The slopes above El Tartar are challenging for all levels of free-riders and I enjoyed a fabulous morning this week lapping one of the lifts after 40cm of fresh snow.

A nearby information hut was buried under the snow with just its roof showing.

Buried in AndorraBuried in Andorra

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


For a video report from James on conditions at the moment and what Andorra is like then see the video below.

On the other side of the Principality are the two linked resorts of Pal and Arinsal. A 30-minute car journey away is the resort of Arcalis that is over-looked by many but has the highest and steepest skiing.

This season it still has a base of 3m at the top of the resort. Sadly I didn't manage to get round this time but I was reliably informed it is still as good as ever.

Arinsal is pretty much ideal for beginners with easy slopes and good progression terrain. 

Spring turns in AndorraArinsal under sun

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pal, with many runs cut through the trees, is one of the prettiest small resorts we know at PlanetSKI. 

Now I must declare an immediate interest as my children learned to ski here a dozen or so years ago and so skiing round it again brought back many fond memories.

I have a soft-spot for Pal.

Pal, AndorraPal, Andorra

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is nothing terribly challenging here but its oozes character and you will be lucky (or should that be unlucky) if you hear a single British voice.

A decade or so ago Andorra was full of British voices.  It attracted 13% of the British ski market - that has now fallen to 6.5%.

Why?

It happened as the ski resorts went upmarket - the lift systems were improved, snowmaking installed and the hotels upgraded. Many millions of euros were spent and prices went up accordingly.  Those on a budget looked to Eastern Europe.

And that was its problem - its core market left and the better skiers with more money to spend were unconvinced by the new Andorra. Then came the crash of Autumn 2008 as markets everywhere declined.

What is left though is a ski area that rivals the Alps in terrain and infrastructure.  Finally the British are realising this and making a return.  The UK's largest ski tour operator, Crystal Ski, says visitor numbers are up.

The skier who wants more than just a budget holiday is realising its attractions.

The 4* Hotel Sport in Soldeu is luxurious in the extreme.

The Caldea spa and wellness centre in the capital, Andorra la Vella, is worthy of one of the large Austrian centres.

The food can be exceptional and is far from the "meat and cheese" offering in some ski resorts. However its mountain restaurants certainly leave something to be desired - this is not Zermatt.

If you enjoy a good mountain lunch then try the restaurant at the Coll de la Botella between Pal and Arinsal or at the Pessons restaurant between Pas de la Casa and Soldeu.  Both are worth it for the views alone.

Those that chose this season have been fortunate. It has barely stopped snowing.

"This is the best season in 20 years with huge amounts of snow," said a local ski instructor to me while we were enjoying the powder in Grau Roig.

"I have been working here each season for the past 10 years and it is the best I have seen," said a waitress from a restaurant in Pas de La Casa.

Pas de la Casa is at 2,100m so it is high.  If it were in the Alps it would be one of the highest, so even in years with less snow it is a pretty reliable bet.

Pas is also full of duty free shops - alcohol seems to go down well. I saw a 5-lite bottle of whiskey selling for €18.95.

Fancy a drink?Fancy a drink?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But Andorra is not just booze, bar crawls and shots. 

The Principality was formed in 1278 between the Bishop of Urgell and the Count of Foix and it has remained staunchly independent ever since. There is a rich Romanesque heritage stretching back 1,000 years and the valleys in Andorra have been populated for 5,000 years.

Catalan is the official language and there is a unique Spanish feel to the place and visitors from south of the border make up the highest number of visitors.  There are also Portugese and increasing numbers of Russians.

It also has excellent ski schools with a high number of English-speaking instructors. A 5-day course of lessons  for 3 hours each morning is €125 in low season and €137 in high season.  If you are serious about improving our skiing then a course here represents excellent value and you will become a better skier or snowboarder.

Popular for learningPopular for learning

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And me?

Well this is my first visit to Andorra for a decade after coming here for around 5 years in a row. I fully intend to return next year and if my kids want to come again, and now out-ski me, then so much the better.

I won't be missing out on Arcalis either.

I just hope the snow is as good as this season.

Maybe some of it will still be here.

Most snow in decadesMost snow in decades

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More snow in PyreneesMore snow in Pyrenees

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spring turns in AndorraSpring turns in Andorra

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FACT BOX

Crystal Ski (www.crystalski.co.uk; 0871 231 2256) offers ski holidays to Arinsal, Pas, Soldeu and El Tarter in Andorra and a week's stay at the four-star Hotel Magic in Pas costs from £599 including flights from Gatwick, transfers and half board (departure 12 January 2014).

For more information see www.grandvalira.com; www.vallnord.com and www.skiandorra.ad 

For the spirit of the mountains

intersport

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